Scientists Wednesday began studying the 9,300-year-old remains of Kennewick Man, one of the oldest and most complete skeletons ever found in North America – and focus of a long legal battle between researchers and Northwest Indian tribes.
The remains have been under lock and key since 1998 at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. A group of 11 researchers from around the country has gathered for the first comprehensive study of the remains, which include more than 300 bones.
The research has been fiercely opposed by four Northwest tribes – the Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce and Colville – which wanted the bones reburied without scientific scrutiny.
The tribes claimed they were entitled to the bones under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
“We just want this person returned so he can be properly reburied,” said Debra Croswell, a spokeswoman for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Pendleton, Ore.
In February 2004, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – backing an earlier decision by a federal judge – ruled in favor of eight anthropologists who filed a lawsuit seeking to study the remains. The panel decided there was no link between the skeleton and the tribes.
Archaeologists and anthropologists will take measurements and record observations during the 10-day study, attempting to unravel the mystery of how Kennewick Man died and what sort of effects nature had on his bones.
None of the scientists was available for comment, said Burke Museum spokesman Mary Anne Barron.
Scientists last month took scans of the skull and the pelvis, which has a spearhead embedded in it, and created a three-dimensional picture that has been used to construct models of the bones.
The models will be used for additional research and to minimize impact to the actual skeleton. Samples taken from fragments of the leg during government studies in 1999 and 2000 will again be analyzed in the coming months.
Scientists have until July 15 to complete the study; the bones will then be returned to a secure facility at the museum, said Nola Leyde, an Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman in Seattle. The Corps owns the property along the Columbia River near Kennewick where the skeleton was discovered.
An appeal in the legal battle by the Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes remain pending; a decision isn’t expected until next spring, said Rob Roy Smith, a Seattle attorney for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation.
A favorable ruling for the tribes could give them control of what ultimately happens to the remains.
Legislation also remains under consideration in the Senate that would allow federally recognized tribes to claim ancient remains even if they cannot prove a link to a current tribe.
“What the tribes want now is just to have a seat at the table,” Smith said. “They want to know what’s going on. That is a right that is being denied them by both the scientists and the United States.”